Nokia N9 could run Android apps: Alien Dalvik interview

We talked to Myriad about Alien Dalvik, the software that can put Android apps on MeeGo phones like the upcoming Nokia N9 -- not to mention in cars and aeroplanes.

We'd love to see the Nokia N9's polycarbonate case stuffed with Android apps as much as the next geek, but our interview with the company that can make it happen reveals it's far from a done deal.

The Nokia N9 runs MeeGo, and it looks as though it could be the only one. That means there's bound to be an app shortage. So it's no wonder Nokia fans have jumped all over reports from sites such as SlashGear that software called Alien Dalvik will let us run Android apps on the phone.

Android apps are written to run on a virtual machine called Dalvik. Alien Dalvik makes it possible to run Android apps on MeeGo phones like the N9. We spoke to Myriad, the company that makes Alien Dalvik, to find out whether we it was worth getting our hopes up about the Android apps on the N9.

"It's perfectly possible," said Olivier Bartholot, Myriad's VP of business development, although he wouldn't comment specifically on Nokia's plans for Alien Dalvik on the N9.

Back in February at Mobile World Congress, Myriad demonstrated video of Alien Dalvik running on a Nokia N900, which runs Maemo, the software ancestor of MeeGo. The video below shows it in action.

"The whole point of having Alien Dalvik was to be able to run the Dalvik virtual machine on a Maemo/MeeGo environment. That's what we demonstrated on the N900 and there's no reason why it wouldn't work on the N9 as well."

So Alien Dalvik is a solution to the N9's app needs, in theory, but it won't be something you can install yourself, if you end up with an N9 in your pocket. Instead, Nokia or your network would have to slap Alien Dalvik on the phone.

"Because it goes really deep into the root of the OS, it cannot be a downloadable application. It would have to be ported prior to the phone being shipped. It would have to be a decision of the mobile phone manufacturer or the network."

We approached Nokia for new on whether it has any plans to make this happen, but it wouldn't comment.

The BlackBerry PlayBook uses the same Qt framework as MeeGo, and RIM has confirmed that the tablet will run Android apps. The PlayBook will run Android apps in a special app player, however, rather than letting them loose in the BlackBerry app store.

Myriad wouldn't confirm whether Alien Dalvik was the method RIM was using to put Android apps on to the PlayBook. But Bartholot did say an app player isn't necessary to get Android apps on board a device.

"This was their decision in terms of how they implemented it. It's certainly not the only way to do it," Bartholot said. As shown in Myriad's demo video on the N900, Android apps can take their place alongside native MeeGo apps on the phone, and the user need never know the difference.

That doesn't mean you could simply slap the whole Android Market on a Nokia phone, however. Alien Dalvik doesn't support the lesser-used Android APIs, so some apps in the Market won't work on a MeeGo phone without some tweaking.

"We haven't implemented 100 per cent of the API. It's the rule of 20/80. Once you've implemented a certain number of APIs, you've covered 80 per cent of the applications that are available on the Android Market. If you implement more... you will not get much out of doing it."

Examples of apps that would work with Alien Dalvik include Dropbox, photo and image apps, and games such as Angry Birds. Manufacturers who use Alien Dalvik would need to filter the Android Market so only the apps that'll work on their phones are available for the user.

Myriad says by making fewer calls to the phone's processor, apps which have been ported from Android to MeeGo don't run any slower, and they may actually save battery.

"We're going to save 10 to 15 per cent. Is it going to be perceived by the end user? I'm not completely sure, but certainly we're not going to reduce the battery life."

MeeGo phones like the N9 aren't the only phones that could benefit from Alien Dalvik. Even the super-secret phone we're working on in the Crave lab could get a taste.

"With Qt available, and if your actual software is based on the Linux kernel, then I think we're safe in saying that it will run on the Flora Phone."

Myriad is talking to Nokia about bringing Alien Dalvik to Symbian, which is also built on the Qt framework. But unsurprisingly, the dying platform is "not a priority" compared to MeeGo.

Following Nokia's decision to dump MeeGo on its upcoming smart phones in favour of Windows Phone, it's unlikely we'll see many more MeeGo-powered phones. But there are other places where MeeGo, Alien Dalvik, and thus Android apps, may end up, says Bartholot.

Intel has demonstrated MeeGo on tablets, and the Genivi consortium of car companies have also bought into MeeGo. They won't be ditching the OS, despite Nokia's choice, because their development timelines stretch into years rather than months.

"There are a lot of suppliers who decided to go with MeeGo a couple of years ago. They have very long deadlines -- you're not talking about 12 months to develop a product, you're talking about years. We got in touch recently with a company that make planes, who have also decided to go to MeeGo for all the electronics inside the cockpit."

The benefit to cars and planes isn't merely to get Android apps on to their computers so they can practice landing runs with a few rounds of Flight Control. It's the fact there are lots more developers who are familiar with writing apps for Dalvik on Android, who won't have to switch languages in order to build a program that works on your car or jet.

Only time will tell if Nokia is ultimately planning to pop Alien Dalvik on to the N9 before we see the phone on shelves. But now that we know for sure there's nothing stopping us from getting 80 per cent of Android apps on the phone, we won't be happy unless we do. Get on it, Nokia.